Imagine walking down the street on a busy Saturday afternoon in New York City. Thousands of people are bustling around, going about their business, and a complete stranger suddenly walks up to you. “Hi, [insert your name here], I noticed from your Facebook page that you’re a big [insert your favorite past time or hobby here] fan. Let’s be friends!” How does that sound? Such encounters may become a reality in the not-too-distant future. In his TED talk titled, “What will a future without secrets look like?” Alessandro Acquisti explores the implications of increasingly huge amounts of data and new technologies that harness its potential. Acquisti and a team of technology experts developed facial recognition software that scans a picture of someone and compares it to the billions of publicly available pictures on Facebook in order to reveal his or her identity and access other personal information. The process is simple and incredibly powerful. Acquisti tested the app by asking college students to take a simple survey. However, before the students started the survey, he took a picture of them. As the students took the survey, the facial recognition app scanned Facebook to look for the unsuspecting survey-takers. His software successfully found 1 out of 3 students. Acquisti took this a step further by using other publicly available information from the US government to acquire non-public information like a social security number. All Acquisti needs is your face and he can find your social security number.
Do you care that your data is readily available for anyone to see? We might try to rationalize the situation by saying that nothing too bad has come of it so far, so why worry? This is the same mindset that contributed to the financial crisis in 2008. We have to care. We have to find a better way. Acquisti mentions a few of the ways that we can protect ourselves against unwanted collection and dispersion of personal information. Initiatives within the technology community to combat personal data collection have given rise to products like private browsing, email encryption software and privacy preserving data mining algorithms. While these products can certainly diminish your data footprint, they will not eliminate it all together. Be wary about what you share, you never know who might be watching.